Ball pits and bodacious pigs: my week in search of happiness and wonder | Life and style

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We live in interesting times, but interesting times are not good times. The world, like the weather, is permanently unsettled. The government of the UK has retreated to its panic room, and the electorate of the US appears to have gone insane. While real wars are waged abroad, we fight culture wars of such resounding stupidity that it’s embarrassing to hold an opinion. However cynical we may be about the future, every day brings new information that obliges us to revise our forecasts downwards.

Persistent cynicism may be wholly appropriate in such a climate, but it’s not good for you – being cynical is associated with a range of disastrous health outcomes. If we are to leave cynicism behind, we must re-acquaint ourselves with wonder. But how can we do this? Is it possible to find joy again? To learn to see the world as children do? That, at least, is my aim for the immediate future: to seek out childlike things and have some childlike fun, while my capacity for joy still exists.

The petting zoo

Leaving Hatton Cross tube station – one stop before Heathrow airport – I am confronted by a deeply unpromising landscape: beyond the six lanes of the A30, featureless industrial buildings associated with airport logistics stretch into the distance. A plane roars overhead, an expanse of undercarriage just visible through the low cloud. Behind a billboard, a horse nibbles on a bale of hay.

From here, a 10-minute walk down a bleak stretch of pavement is all it takes to reach the unlikely tranquility of Hounslow Urban Farm. The planes still take off and land every few minutes, but the geese and the goats pay no attention. There are all kinds of animals on the four-and-a-half-acre site, and I am here to pet all of them.

Any more apples? Dowling feeds Alfie (left) and Emma at Hounslow Urban Farm. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

The farm moved out here about 12 years ago from Syon Park. Founder Tony Purdy says that in the old days, they used to adopt a lot of exotic animals confiscated from smugglers at the airport, but the farm doesn’t have the facilities to accommodate crocodiles, lemurs and honey bears.

I imagined starting out by stroking a chicken, or maybe being nice to a rabbit, but farm manager Katie Tomkins has other ideas – the first animal I am introduced to is a 12cm cockroach. “They can survive 10 times the amount of radiation a human can, and go nine days without a head,” says Tomkins, placing the insect on my jumper, so it sits there like a brooch. As an experience, wearing a very large cockroach is probably less unsettling than wearing 200 small ones.

What a charmer … Dowling and Fred the python at Hounslow Urban Farm. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

I am draped in snakes, stick insects and a bearded dragon called Flo. Then it’s time to move outside to feed apples to pigs. “Watch your feet,” says Tomkins. Alfie the pig weighs 500kg, so if he steps on your shoe, you’ll know it. He also really likes apples, and has me backed up against the stall pretty quickly. If I were truly looking at the world through the eyes of a child, I might well start crying at this point. Alfie’s partner, Emma (only 300kg), accepts the apples with a certain polite delicacy. With Alfie, it’s more like dropping them into a wood chipper. You don’t want your fingers anywhere near his mouth. When I run out of apples, Alfie appears to have some thoughts about trampling me, before changing his mind and wandering off.

The farm fields are thick with mud from all the recent rain, but the sun is just breaking through as I squelch my way past lines of tiny schoolchildren. On my way to feed the sheep I stop to stroke a curious alpaca leaning over his fence. He feels expensive.

Tomkins knows the name of every animal on the farm – they run to greet her wherever she goes – but I can’t tell Timmy the sheep from his friend Barnaby, possibly because I’m surrounded by a whole flock, all sticking their heads in my feed bucket before I am halfway to the trough. I’m being gently mobbed, and it’s very pleasing.

I end my visit inside one of the farm buildings, with Ozzie the owl flying across the room to my gloved hand, which clutches a tempting glob of eviscerated chick. Luckily, Ozzie is amazingly good at this – my flinching doesn’t put him off.

Overall, it’s a truly uplifting way to spend a morning. On the walk to the farm all I could think was: this would be a very good place to leave a body in a rolled-up rug. On the way home I thought only of gambolling sheep, hungry pigs and a cockroach living nine days without a head.

Come fly with me … Ozzie the owl at Hounslow Urban Farm. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

The seafront

The seafront at Hastings, East Sussex, is not at its best at this time of year – lots of the rides aren’t open, and dark clouds are moving in from offshore. But the arcade is in full swing on a Saturday, and that’s where I’m headed first. When I was young, I loved an amusement arcade, but my mother hated them and refused to take me, even for my birthday. She always gave the same answer: “My mother would never take me to the beach, so when I grew up I married someone who lived near the beach. When you grow up you can marry someone who lives next to the arcade.”

This life plan didn’t work out for me, but no matter, I’m here now and I have one thing my 11-year-old self could only dream of: plenty of money. If I wanted, I could spend the whole weekend in the arcade. Armed with a bucket of 2p coins, I sit down at a machine called the Tower of Terror. It takes me a moment to understand the strategy, which is: there is no strategy. You just roll coins across a moving field hoping they will end up in slots offering different points. Points mean tickets, and tickets mean prizes. I have a small advantage – some of the monsters that are meant to block the path of my coins have fallen off through wear and tear – but the machine still has a bigger one. When my coins are gone, I get more.

I try my hand at a different machine, loosely based on the board game Monopoly. I kill some dinosaurs with a machine gun that squirts water. I compete in a game of Connect 4 using small basketballs. All the while I am being rewarded with tickets, until I end up garlanded with them. After only an hour I have converted £10 into 500 2p coins, 500 coins into 350 tickets and 350 tickets into a £1 bag of sour gummy worms. Satisfied, I head next door to the go-karts.

Any awkwardness I might have felt about being a 60-year-old man approaching the ticket window of a seafront go-kart track is multiplied when I notice that the cashier behind the glass seems to be about nine years old. When I inquire about hiring a car she stands on her chair to reach the waiver forms above her head.

“Name, date of birth, sign in the box,” she says, pushing the paper my way.

“OK, great,” I say.

“Paying cash or card?” she says.

Easy rider … Dowling in his go-kart. Photograph: Handout

Out on the track, I wedge my frame into a tiny car and sit through a stern lecture about some of my fellow racing drivers being small children. Then we’re off. Over 10 laps I suffer the humiliation of being repeatedly overtaken on the figure-eight course, although there is one little kid in a half-size car who I lapped on at least five occasions, comprehensively ruining his afternoon. To be honest, the experience is a bit too much like driving.

A few metres along the front I stop to see if there’s time for a quick round of mini golf before sunset. “Certainly,” says the man at the window. “Are you aware that we’re the world championship course?”

“No,” I say. “I had no idea.”

But it’s true: Hastings Adventure Golf has hosted the World Crazy Golf Championships for more than 20 years. I have come here accompanied by two of my adult sons because I felt weird – even mildly suspect – doing childlike seafront activities on my own. But I needn’t have worried about the mini golf. The championship leaderboards are dominated by middle-aged men who can find the windmill hole in two strokes, every time.

I am no mini golf pro, but the whipping wind blows in my favour and I have a very good round: 53 over 18 holes, enough to win by a stroke. Perhaps the buzz I’m experiencing at this moment is not altogether childlike. It may also have something to do with all the gummy worms I’ve eaten. Who cares? It feels like fun to me.

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Formerly very much a kid’s thing, colouring is now firmly established as a non-embarrassing therapeutic activity for adults, and it’s clear that my new colouring book – Positively Zen, it’s called – is aimed at this market. It’s filled with complex outlines of plants, fish, insects and waves. It looks like a great deal of work.

It doesn’t take me long to recall – and relive – everything I disliked about colouring as a child. While grownups could usually find positive things to say about my drawing, my colouring was invariably criticised, either for going outside the lines or for pressing too hard. And while the crudest children’s drawing can usually find a place on the fridge, a completed colouring book is fit only for the bin.

I try to forget all this, to stay in the moment, to relax into the mindless preoccupation of the task, but colouring feels a lot more like a dead-end job than a form of therapy. After 20 minutes attempting to reproduce the particular iridescence of the underside of a goldfish using a bit of blue along with the orange, I start to blame my tools: this set of pencils has all the wrong colours. Soon, I’m looking for shortcuts, and going outside the lines again. This, I think, is the polar opposite of fun.

“Am I meant to colour in this whole background?” I shout. “I’ll be here all afternoon!”

“What are you doing?” my wife says, leaning into the room.

“Colouring,” I say. “And wasting my time.”

“I used to love colouring,” my wife says.

“It’s all yours,” I say, handing her the book. Soon she is happily filling in a field of wild flowers.

“I don’t understand how you have the patience to do that,” I say.

“I find it very soothing,” she says.

Having a ball … Dowling at the Balloon Museum in Old Billingsgate market. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

The Balloon Museum

Old Billingsgate market on the Thames in central London currently houses an experience – the Balloon Museum’s Emotion Air show – that is said to inspire childlike wonder in children and adults. It’s an installation featuring the inflatable works of 20 artists from across the globe, all exploring the relationship between art and emotion.

These works made of air, form, colour and light (and sound, though it must compete with a constant background hum of compressors) are by turns disarming and disorientating. Some are clearly designed to leave you standing there with your mouth slightly agape, either in wonder or bafflement.

“It’s a project that welcomes all ages,” says Giulia Francescangeli, the museum’s customer care coordinator. “And it’s a place where adults can become children again.”

Good, I think. That’s why I’m here.

There are lots of parents squeezing buggies through forests of balloons, and lots of kids pushing around giant balloons and bouncing off inflatable walls. But do they get many unaccompanied adults coming along looking for joy? “Yeah, by themselves,” says Francescangeli. “And that’s fine. They have so much fun here. I think it’s great for everyone.”

The big draw of the Balloon Museum – the bit everyone talks about – is the ball pit. It’s the size of a swimming pool, filled to the brim with bright yellow balls and very much open to all. The Balloon Museum currently has exhibitions running all over the world, with different inflatable works and different themes in each city. “But the ball pit is always present,” says Francescangeli. “It’s the heart of the project.”

It’s been a long time since I got into a ball pit, and even then it was only to rescue a child who had slipped beneath the surface. Going in on my own seems weird, but once I’m waist deep and out in the middle, I start to see other adults dotted around the pit: lying up to their necks in yellow balls, looking at their phones, all of them seemingly caught up in pure bliss.

Soon, I join them – alone, weightless, buoyed up by balls. After a minute, a sound and light show begins, with abstract projections rolling across a bubbled ceiling. I don’t allow my mouth to hang open in wonder – you don’t know where these balls have been – but after a few minutes my breath slows and my eyes have become as wide as saucers.

Of all the different rooms at the Balloon Museum, the ball pit is the only one where people have to be moved on during busy periods. You’re only meant to stay for one cycle of the light show – about 15 minutes. But when the show ends I’m tempted to sink quietly into the balls and wait for the start of the next one. It seems like such an easy place to lose your cares, your pessimism, your cynicism and so many other things.

“We find a lot of shoes,” says Francescangeli.

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